Brilliant collection’s heady adult prose attacks all comers


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Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/05/2011 (4402 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

By Zsuzsi Gartner

Hamish Hamilton Canada, 224 pages, $30

Zsuzsi  Gartner
Zsuzsi Gartner

Vancouver author Zsuzsi Gartner is a lit firecracker left unattended on a summer lawn chair. She’s the gossipy neighbour who gives the cul-de-sac bore a clever nickname.

In 1999, when Gartner’s acerbic All the Anxious Girls on Earth story collection appeared, its wicked prose was embraced by critics. Gartner struck a discordant note in the heady bathtub-reading era of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

It’s tempting to lump Gartner in with the glib chick-lit genre. But that’s as dangerous an assumption as buying your curious 10-year-old nephew the complete first season of Californication without consulting his mother.

Gartner’s dangerously adult prose is replete with gothic sensibilities and flippant misanthropy. She’s the bastard child of Joseph Conrad and Flannery O’Connor.

This is no bourgeois book club pick. There isn’t one false, or sappy, note in this brilliant collection.

The pace is fervent, the prose heady and the social observations are bang-on. In We Come in Peace, five angels briefly inhabit the bodies of the teen residents of Arcadia Court.

“Nothing good has ever come of romanticizing the downtrodden,” warns the angel Rachmiel. “Lock your purse in the trunk and ‘dress-down,’ we’re going to the wrong part of town to help ‘the unfortunate.'”

Gartner’s savvy cast of dishevelled characters frets over missing Rhoda reruns on WTN, argue about who was the real genius — Bernie Taupin or Elton John — and fantasize about wiping their bums with the editorial page of the Vancouver Sun.

There are no sacred cows. Asian adoptees, Olympic mascots, overbearing parents and burnt-out writing instructors all feel the sting of Gartner’s sharp tongue.

Syd Gross’s running commentary on the film business in Mister Kakami is required reading: “Syd hates trips to the West Coast. You can’t get a decent veal sandwich and just yesterday he met a woman who lived on a houseboat in False Creek and who gave her Abyssinian kittens bimonthly fish oil enemas.”

There’s also a sly nod in this story to Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, as Gartner describes one “long-lost auntie, now spectral and gone feral.”

Gartner has outdone herself with Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. She will garner a fistful of award nominations, more than a few fireworks and maybe even some hang-up phone calls.

Patricia Dawn Robertson is a Saskatchewan freelance writer.

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